Killer Offered To Locate Scholar's Body To Avoid Death Penalty

PEORIA, IL — A day after a jury took just 90 minutes to find him guilty in the kidnapping and death of 26-year-old Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang, attorneys for killer Brendt Christensen filed a document claiming he previously offered to reveal the location of her body in exchange for a life sentence. Christensen, 29, faces a possible death sentence after he was convicted this week in the June 2017 death of Zhang, who had arrived at the University of Illinois just two months earlier for a yearlong stint as a researcher.

Zhang vanished on June 9, 2017, after a surveillance camera showed her getting into Christensen’s vehicle near the U of I campus in Urbana. Her remains have never been recovered.

In a June 25 filing, attorneys for Christensen continued their bid to spare him from the death penalty, looking to bar Zhang’s family from mentioning that her remains have not been located during their victim impact statements.

“The fact that Ms. Zhang’s remains have not been found says nothing about her ‘uniqueness as an individual human being,'” the filing states. “Nor is the fact that Ms. Zhang’s remains have not been located relevant to the impact of Ms. Zhang’s death on her family.”

The documents cite recent TV interviews by Zhang’s parents, including a statement made by her mother that she hopes Christensen reveals the location of her daughter’s body. If repeated in court, attorneys say that claim would imply that Christensen has refused to reveal the location of Zhang’s remains.

“In truth, however, within six months of his arrest Mr. Christensen agreed to plead guilty to the charges against him, to cooperate fully with investigators and provide all information in his possession regarding the crime and the location of the victim’s remains and to accept a sentence of life without possibility of release,” the June 25 court filing notes.

Christensen, accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing Zhang, pleaded not guilty, though his attorneys admitted he killed Zhang during the opening statements in his trial.

It took jurors about 90 minutes to come back with a guilty verdict on Monday.

Zhang arrived in the U.S. in April 2017 to research photosynthesis and crop productivity for U of I’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. On the day she went missing, the 26-year-old had been expected to meet with her new landlord to sign a lease on an apartment.

On Saturday, June 10, 2017, friends notified University of Illinois police that they hadn’t heard from Zhang since 1:30 p.m. the previous day. At about that time, police said she texted the property manager at her new apartment building to say she would be late for their meeting. She was spotted boarding a Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District teal line bus just after 1:30 p.m. and exiting the bus at 1:52 p.m.

Just after 2 p.m., Zhang was recorded on surveillance footage (below) getting into Christensen’s Saturn Astra.

Prosecutors said Christensen lured Zhang into his vehicle by posing as an undercover officer.

A week after Zhang went missing, the FBI offered a $10,000 reward for information to help locate her. Her family pledged another $50,000 for tips leading to their daughter and the arrest and prosecution of her kidnapper. A GoFundMe campaign was also launched in June 2017 to help her parents with expenses as they traveled to Illinois to search for their daughter.

“Yingying is our pride and joy,” the family said in a July 2017 statement. “She is smart, hard-working, brave and kind. Her dream was to complete her education and return to China to become a university professor, support her family and share her knowledge with students for years to come. We know Yingying wants to be with us and we will not leave the United States without her.”

On June 27, more than two weeks after Zhang vanished, police said they’d located the Saturn Astra. On June 30 — his birthday — Christensen was arrested after the FBI said he was recorded admitting to kidnapping Zhang while under surveillance. The former U of I graduate student had even attended a vigil for Zhang with his then-girlfriend in the days that followed her death, the FBI said.

In November 2017, attorneys for Christensen claimed Zhang might still be alive, saying someone had logged into online accounts she owned and that “several purported sightings” of her had been reported around the country.

But police and the FBI maintained since early in the case that they believe Zhang was dead — a claim Christensen’s attorneys confirmed when they admitted this week that he had raped her and stabbed her to death.

Prosecutors announced in early 2018 that they would seek the death penalty in Christensen’s case, making it the first federal death penalty case in Illinois since the state abolished capital punishment in 2011. The U.S. Attorney’s office cited factors including Christensen’s lack of remorse, “the vulnerability of the victim … due to her small stature and limited ability to communicate in English” and Christensen’s attempts to obstruct the investigation by making false statements to investigators, “destroying or concealing the victim’s remains and sanitizing the crime scene.”

Jurors will decide Christensen’s fate when the sentencing phase of the case begins July 8.

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